The Trillion-Dollar Question

Taking his star turn in Europe this week, President Barack Obama preached cooperation and persistence and urgency in addressing the global financial crisis. But back in Washington, there was a long parade of reminders of all the other equally pressing issues that he must deal with, most conspicuously the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This week, the Government Accountability Office released a report putting the present cost of the Bush Global War on Terror at $808 billion, with another $75 billion request coming down the pike for this fiscal year. The report warns, "The United States' commitments to GWOT will likely involve the continued investment of significant resources, requiring decision makers to consider difficult trade-offs as the nation faces an increasing long-range fiscal challenge."

But arguably more concerning than those fiscal challenges may be the simple continuation of that war. On Wednesday, administration officials went before Congress to explain the president's new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. When the important strategic and operational considerations are set aside, what's left is a plan that promises a deeper engagement with no end in sight. That is simply the wrong direction to in which to go.

Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. David Petraeus stated that his commanders in Afghanistan had already asked for 10,000 more troops to be deployed next year and that it will be up to President Obama to grant the request in the fall. There is no reason to doubt that the troops will be deployed. Already, 38,000 U.S. soldiers are in Afghanistan, and that number is expected to rise to 68,000 by the end of the year. The request for 10,000 more soldiers, if granted, will bring the number of troops in Afghanistan to 78,000 by next spring.

The president and his aides have been clear about their aims. At the same Armed Service hearing, Defense Undersecretary Michèle Flournoy explained, "Our strategic goal is very clear: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies." She added, "To do so, we must eliminate their safe haven in Pakistan and prevent their re-emergence in Afghanistan. All of the elements of national power we employ -- political, diplomatic, military, and economic -- must be oriented on achieving this goal."

Sounds noble, but the Obama administration would be wise to hold firm to its explicit promise that the bottom-line strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is to get out as soon as possible. Obama should not be seduced by the prospect of fighting a better war in Afghanistan than Bush fought in Iraq.

For now, Obama gets the benefit of the doubt for having been on the right side of the argument all along. Still, some of the president's proposals appear to maintain the status quo and have an unsettling Bush-like quality. Those who say that Afghanistan will turn into Obama's Vietnam are being premature alarmists, but we should all be a little bit worried to hear Republicans praising Obama's strategy as something George Bush would have done. This is not the typical knee-jerk anti-Bushism: We must remember that nearly all of Bush's policy on Iraq and Afghanistan was wrong.

So there is reason for concern when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tells John King on CNN, "The administration is essentially adopting the policies of the Bush administration and both Iraq and Afghanistan. And I want to commend them for it."

Given the complete lack of critical judgment with which congressional Republicans approached the war, this kind of praise is cheap: On a fundamental level, McConnell and others are still trying to justify Bush's disastrous approach to the war. "The surge in Iraq worked," McConnell told King and, referring to the Obama administration, added: "I wish they could bring themselves to say that, and I think the surge in Afghanistan is likely to work as well under the brilliant leadership of General Petraeus."

In his prepared statement to the committee, Petraeus offered a bulleted list of eight priorities for the year. The goals included "countering transnational terrorist and extremist organizations that threaten the security of the United States and our allies" and "bolstering the capabilities of partner security forces in the region."

All of which sounds to me more like a winding up than a winding down. As we were hearing that March produced the lowest monthly totals of American casualties in Iraq since the start of the war, Flournoy was predicting "higher human costs" in Afghanistan.

Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia asked Flournoy maybe the most important question of last week's meeting: "How does this end?"

She replied, "Success is when both the Afghans and the Pakistanis have both the capability and the will to deal with the remaining threat themselves."

A response, but not an answer.

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